Rhode Island is where the journey of becoming a basketball head coach all started for Richard Pitino.
Pitino got his first coaching experience as a volunteer assistant at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington, R.I., when he was a freshman at Providence College in 2001.
A few years later, the son of a future Hall of Fame coach started working with the Friars staff. And that opportunity gave him the first glimpse of the inner workings of a college program.
“That whole state means a lot to me,” Pitino said. “That college means a lot to me. It holds a special place in my heart. I had a great four years there.”
Any other time Pitino wishes Providence success on the court, but not Monday night when his 15th-ranked Gophers (1-0) play the Friars at Dunkin’ Donuts Center in the Gavitt Tipoff Games.
The Friars’ home court was called the Providence Civic Center when Pitino’s father coached the program from 1985-87.
The Pitino family had an emotional second season at Providence when Rick and Joanne Pitino’s 6-month-old son, Daniel, died of congenital heart failure just before the NCAA tournament in March 1987. The Friars would finish 25-9 after losing to Syracuse in the Final Four with current Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan as the team’s top player.
Rick Pitino returned to the NBA to coach the New York Knicks after the 1986-87 season. Richard was only 4 at the time, but he remembered enough to realize later how fun that period was with the Friars and Donovan.
“Providence was always kind of my dream school growing up, to be honest, because my dad had coached there in ’87 and went to a Final Four,” Pitino said. “Growing up I was in Boston, I kind of consider myself a New Englander. I went to high school in Boston. I had some friends who were going there. Providence was probably an hour and 20 minutes away. So I wanted to be somewhat close to home, but not too close.”
Pitino helped at basketball camps run by then-Providence coach Tim Welsh when he arrived on campus. Welsh knew the Pitino family well and watched Richard coach at nearby St. Andrew’s. He invited him to be a Friars student manager his senior year in 2004.
“I was excited, because I really liked Richard and I knew he could bring a lot to the table,” Welsh said. “He did a lot of different things, whether it was breaking down film, being in meetings and helping with recruiting mail-outs. He wore a lot of hats and wasn’t afraid to work.”
Welsh saw Pitino grow close to his star player, Ryan Gomes, who would have his best season when they were together. Gomes, a 6-7 forward, led the Big East in scoring with 21.6 points per game and was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the 2005 NBA draft. He later played for the Timberwolves.
“He and Ryan really connected,” Welsh said. “They talked a lot about winning and work ethic. That showed me right away that Richard was going to be very, very successful when he moved on.”
Pitino left to become an assistant at Northeastern under Ron Everhart for the 2005-06 season, officially kick-starting his coaching career at 23 years old. The journey, though, all started at Providence.
Welsh is sure Pitino will reminisce a lot about his days in Rhode Island before Monday’s game.
“A lot goes with it,” Welsh said. “But with the maturity he has beyond his years, once the game starts none of that will matter. Leading up to the game you think about it, but after the ball tips he’ll be about trying to find ways to win.”